BORN: 1883, Prague, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic)
DIED: 1923, Lipnice, Czechoslovakia
GENRE: Fiction, Poetry
The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War (1923)
Jaroslav Hasek. Jaroslav Hasek, 1904, photograph. Courtesy of Richard Hasek. Reproduced by permission.
Czech writer and humorist Jaroslav Hasek became internationally known for his novel The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War (1923). He was also the author of approximately fifteen hundred stories, sketches, and newspaper columns; in addition, he wrote plays for cabarets. Hasek’s work was closely linked to his unconventional lifestyle, which became the subject of many stories and legends that Hasek himself helped to create. In his best works, the spontaneity of his storytelling and overall ironic detachment indicate his belief in unpretentiousness and tolerance.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Tumultuous Early Life. Hasek was born on April 30, 1883, in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic. Both his father, Josef Hasek, a mathematics teacher and bank official, and his mother, Katerina (nee Jaresova), came from south Bohemian families of farming stock.
They lived in Prague under precarious circumstances, moving often because of Josef Hassek’s alcoholism and financial troubles. Hasek attended secondary school, but left in 1898 after experiencing academic difficulties and began working in a pharmacist’s shop.
First Publications. From 1899 to 1902, he studied at the Commercial Academy on Resslova Street, and, after his final examinations, he worked in the Slavia Bank. A year later, however, he gave up that job and set off on a journey through Slovakia, Hungary, the Balkans, and Galicia. In the next few years, he visited such places as Bavaria, Switzerland, and Austria and often traveled around Bohemia. He had already begun writing when he was still a student, and his first efforts had been published in newspapers and magazines. These were chiefly amusing accounts of his travels and short literary essays inspired by his roaming through Moravia, Slovakia, and Poland. Gradually, his studies of everyday life and original portraits of simple people became realistic rather than romantically charming, and his extravagant humor was already a signature element.
Break with Modernists. At the beginning of the century, Czech cultural life was profiting from the modernist influences of the 1890s. Hassek counted himself one of the rising generation that stressed individual skepticism and revolt against convention. Reacting against aesthetic decadence and symbolism, they turned their attention directly to their own experiences in their daily lives. They tended to take up anarchic attitudes and to write in a loose, popular, mocking style. Hasek, however, was by nature cynical and anti-literary establishment, and he soon broke away from contemporary literary movements.
For him, writing was a mere job. He wrote mainly for amusement—his own and the public’s. Even his first book, Cries of May, and Other Verse (1903), jointly written with Ladislav Hajek Domazlicky, was a parody, shattering the sentimental delusions of poets and juxtaposing them with the unattractiveness of ordinary life and the contrasts between rich and poor. The activities and the naivete of writers and artists—including himself—often became the targets of Hassek’s mockery. Hassek later only rarely wrote satirical verse, such as Kalamajka (1913), which takes its title from the name of an old Czech dance.
Military Life during World War I. World War I soon broke out, greatly affecting Hasek’s life. The war began in 1914 when the heir to the throne of Austria- Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Serbia by a Bosnian terrorist. At the time, Prague and Bohemia were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as was much of what would later become Czechoslovakia. Because of entangling diplomatic alliances, what could have been a local conflict became a massive war engulfing much of Europe and territories worldwide. Austria-Hungary was allied with Germany and Turkey against Russia, Great Britain, France, and, later, the United States.
In February 1915, Hasek joined the Ninety-first Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army in Ceske Budejovice. In September, he was taken prisoner by the Russians and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Darnice, near Kiev, and then to Totskoye, near Buzuluk, where he survived a typhoid (a bacterial disease) epidemic. In the spring of 1916, Hasek enlisted in the Czech Foreign Legion, fighting against Austria on the side of the Russians.
Wartime Writing Efforts. In the legion, Hasek worked as a typist and was secretary to the regimental committee. He also wrote humorous articles and reports for the magazine Czecho-Slav, in which he supported the fight for an independent state for Czech and Slovak territories then controlled by other countries. In 1917, he was involved in the battle of Zborov (the last Russian offensive of the war), and his valorous conduct was mentioned in dispatches. After the retreat to the Ukraine, however, he came into conflict with his superiors when he criticized the small-mindedness and the overcautious attitude of the Czech National Council in Russia and the leadership of the legion.
Continued Radical Military Service. After the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which saw the Russian monarchy removed in favor of what became the Communist-controlled Soviet Union, Hasek refused to go with the legion to France, and in the subsequent chaos at the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918, he became involved in the attempt to establish a revolutionary council of Czech workers and soldiers in Kiev. After that, he went to Moscow and joined the Czech Social Democrats (the Bolsheviks). He became a political activist in the Red Army, serving as a press organizer, editor of army magazines in various languages, and publicist. He organized recruitment in Samara. In 1919, he was in charge of the army printing works in Ufa.
During the five years of war and revolution the serious side of Hasek’s nature revealed itself. Still impulsive and politically a radical, he gradually began to believe in the idea of social justice for which he might be able to work and live respectably. If the idea of social justice was to be put into practice, it would improve conditions even in Bohemia. Hassek, always keenly aware of the conflict between dream and reality, eventually seems to have lost this faith.
Final Years. In August 1921, Hasek moved to the village of Lipnice nad Sazavou in southeastern Bohemia, which was then part of the newly formed Czechoslovak Republic. There, he worked on his novel, The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War. He had already begun writing it in Prague, where it appeared in installments from 1921 to 1923. When his health deteriorated, he dictated the text of the novel, almost ready for publication, using his encyclopedic memory. However, he did not complete the task. He died on January 3, 1923, as a result of pneumonia and heart failure.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Hasek's famous contemporaries include:
James Joyce (1882-1941): The Irish author whose novel Ulysses (1922) was initially banned because of its sexual content.
Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931): The Lebanese author whose The Prophet (1923), a collection of poetic essays, is still extremely popular.
Zhou Zuoren (1885-1967): An influential Chinese essayist and translator who rendered many myths and fictional writings into vernacular Chinese. He published a translation of Edgar Allan Poe's ''The Gold-Bug'' in 1905.
Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919): A Mexican rebel, Zapata created and led the Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945): The thirty- second president of the United States, he served in office from 1933 until his death in 1945.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Whatever else might be said of The Good Soldier Svejk, the novel is above all else an adventure novel—a novel about the travels and travails of its protagonist. Here are a few other novels and films that take place on the road:
The Crossing (1994), a novel by Cormac McCarthy. In this novel, young Billy Parham captures a wolf on his farm in New Mexico. He decides to return the wolf to Mexico, where he thinks it has come from, and in crossing over into Mexico, his life changes forever.
The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), three novels by J. R. R. Tolkien. This trilogy of fantasy novels describes protagonist Frodo's perilous trip across Middle-earth to Mordor and back to his home, the Shire.
Without a Paddle (2004), a film directed by Stephen Brill. In this film, three childhood friends reunite in their early thirties to travel to Oregon in search of the lost, stolen treasure of D. B. Cooper.
On the Road (1957), a novel by Jack Kerouac. This defining work of the postwar Beat generation is a largely autobiographical work written as a stream-of- consciousness creation. The story is based on the spontaneous road trips taken by the author and his friends across mid-century America.
Works in Literary Context
Critics often compare The Good Soldier Svejk to the works of Rabelais and Cervantes. Like the works of these predecessors, Hassek’s novel is bawdy, disrespectful, and unrelentingly ironic. In fact, some critics have called Svejk the most thorough attack upon bourgeois values ever written. Even though Svejk has been analyzed on anarchist, nationalist, and socialist grounds, his individual and ambivalent nature defies absolute categorization. Given the critical nature of The Good Soldier Svejk and the sprawling nature of its plot, Hassek’s most famous fictional work is best understood as a picaresque satire. That is to say, Hasek makes pointed attacks on his contemporaries (satire), and the novel follows the adventures of a wanderer.
Satire. The originality of The Good Soldier Svejk is unquestionable, as is its status as a uniquely Czech work responding to particular historical circumstances. Svejk is hardly just historical fiction. It is clearly satirical, and it has been compared with the satires of British writer Jonathan Swift. Similarly, in his boisterous and often obscene humor Hassek has been compared with French satirist Franyois Rabelais. Robert Pynsent, in The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Literary Essays, compared Hassek’s attack on the Austrian war effort with that of the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, while J. P. Stern, in Forum for Modern Language Studies, likened Svejk to American writer Joseph Heller’s antiwar novel Catch-22.
“Svejkism’’. Commonly, satire focuses on situations rather than characters. Indeed, with The Good Soldier Svejk, Hasek was not concerned with delving deeply into the minds of his characters, who are all lovingly sketched types. The crucial factor is the situation created by the juxtaposition of these types and their collective involvement in the insanity of the world war. Thus Svejk’s idiotic, literal-minded obedience to orders from his superiors is a device used by Hasek to reveal the absurdity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its military bureaucracy, and ultimately the futility of war in general. This inimitable technique of subverting a military machine through excessive zeal, whether genuine or pretended, has inspired the term ‘‘Svejkism,’’ familiar to most central Europeans, even those who have not read the novel.
Picaresque. The Good Soldier Svejk also belongs to another subgenre, possibly fiction’s oldest: the picaresque novel, which relates the adventures of a wanderer. Svejk’s episodic plot, its depiction of a central character from the underclass, and, above all, its perspective mark it as a classic twentieth-century example of this genre. The picaresque perspective is one that exposes pretense, and in Svejk codes of honor receive particular scorn, as do any notions that causes are worth dying for. This perspective is limited to the current state of society—Svejk himself is only interested in self-preservation, and the narration never points to any ideological or revolutionary solution to the problems depicted.
Works in Critical Context
Most critical attention has been focused on The Good Soldier Svejk, primarily because only a few of his short stories have been translated into English and because of the popularity of Svejk. However, in both the stories and Svejk, critics have commented on the satire therein and regard the shorter fiction as a preparation, in style and theme, for the longer work.
The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War. Despite the impressive nature of his satirical perspective, particularly in The Good Soldier Svejk, Hasek did not initially find favor with most Czech critics. Apart from the expected condemnations prompted by Hasek’s personal reputation, objections were raised concerning The Good Soldier Svejk’s vulgar expressions, allegedly obscene subject matter, invariably blasphemous treatment of religion, the crudeness of prose, and—above all—the unflattering light that the novel's protagonist cast on the Czech national character. Those who took pride in the heroic exploits of the Czech Foreign Legion and justified World War I because it led to Czech independence did not wish to see Czechs presented as antimilitarist malingerers and saboteurs, least of all by a legion deserter.
Only the enthusiastic reception of The Good Soldier Svejk abroad—most notably in Germany, where Grete Reiner’s 1926 translation and subsequent theatrical versions created a genuine craze—compelled many Czech critics to reexamine Hasek’s novel. This reevaluation, completed under the Communist regime, eventually led to Hasek’s reputation as a literary master.
While The Good Soldier Svejk has been hailed as a masterwork, its protagonist has been the subject of a critical debate: Is he really the idiot he seems, or is his idiocy a mask deliberately assumed to thwart the Austrian military bureaucracy? Ample evidence exists for either point of view. The assertion that Svejk’s idiocy is a deliberately assumed mask points to a crucial issue concerning the character, the author, and the very nature of writing under an oppressive regime. Though Hasek wrote the final version of The Good Soldier Svejk in the relatively free atmosphere of the Czechoslovak Republic, his literary style and even his personality, as Gustav Janouch has suggested in Jaroslav Hasek, was formed by living under a repressive system—one that imposed censorship—and by the resulting need to mask one’s true sentiments.
Responses to Literature
1. Based on your reading of The Good Soldier Svejk, do you think that Svejk is the idiot he seems to be? In what ways, if at all, will the answer to this question affect your reading and enjoyment of the text? Write a paper in which you outline your opinions.
2. Read Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing after reading The Good Soldier Svejk. How do McCarthy and Hasek use travel differently or similarly? In other words, why do you think each chose to use travel to initiate their respective plots? Cite passages from each text to support your response in an essay.
3. Think of a trip you took in your life. What happened during this trip? In what ways did the trip affect your life—who you are, what you feel, what you believe? What interesting or bizarre people did you encounter on this trip? Write the story of this trip.
4. Hasek is largely remembered as a satirist—a person who creatively criticizes those people, practices, or sets of beliefs that he or she finds ridiculous or unjustifiable. Write a satire while keeping these questions in mind: What practice or set of beliefs do you find ridiculous or unjustifiable? How can you show that this practice or set of beliefs is ridiculous or unjustifiable? What characters would you need to create in order to demonstrate the superiority of your alternative set of beliefs or practices?
Frynta, Emanuel. Hasek: The Creator of Schweik. Translated by Jean Layton and George Theiner. Prague: Artia, 1965.
Klein, Holger, ed. The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1977.
Parrott, Cecil. The Bad Bohemian: The Life of Jaroslav Hasek, Creator of ‘‘The Good Soldier Svejk’’. London: Bodley Head, 1978.
________. Jaroslav Hasek: A Study of ‘‘Svejk’’ and the Short Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Prochazka, Willy. Satire in Jaroslav Hasek’s Novel ‘‘The Good Soldier Schweik’’. New York: New York University Press, 1966.
Souckova, Milada. A Literary Satellite: Czechoslovak-Russian Literary Relations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.